Our Bodies Don’t Operate on the School’s Clockwork: Why Students Need Bathroom Freedom

Some teachers prevent or discourage students from using the bathroom during class, defending their methods as a way to help students learn, but these policies can hurt students, both physically and psychologically.

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The average person uses the bathroom six to seven times a day, or every three to four hours. Considering school is seven and a half hours long, excluding commute time and after-school activities, most students need to use the bathroom at least once during the school day. However, some teachers highly discourage their students from leaving the classroom or penalize them for going to the bathroom by lowering their participation grades. Some teachers contend that their restrictive bathroom policies are reasonable because a student’s time spent in the bathroom is time taken away from learning material, but students feel that they should be allowed to leave the classroom when necessary.

Some teachers refuse to let students leave the classroom at all. Freshman Queenie Cao said, “[My teacher often says,] ‘No, you can’t go.’ And she’ll make something up. She’ll be like, ‘Oh, you already went so many times.’” 

Cao’s teacher is not the only teacher who does this. “Whenever somebody asks to go to the bathroom in [my teacher’s] class, she automatically says, ‘No’ or ‘In a bit,’” freshman Sophie Tulovsky described in an e-mail interview. 

In an e-mail interview, Anonymous Teacher A, who has a similar policy to the one described by Tulovsky, explained why they may keep a student from using the bathroom in class: “One problem is that the student wants to go to the bathroom in the middle of the lesson when an important concept is being discussed. [...] The bathroom requests interfere with the lesson and then put the teacher in the position of repeating the material and the student being distracted.” However, a student who needs to go to the bathroom will be distracted from the lesson regardless: a 2011 study found that having to go to the bathroom has a negative effect on one’s attention span and memory function. In other cases, leaving the room to go to the bathroom may actually be a student’s attempt to regain their focus; for students with sensory processing disorder, panic disorder, or trauma-related disorders, stimuli in the classroom environment can make staying calm and on-task nearly impossible. By having the opportunity to leave the room and detach themselves from external triggers, students can take the time to regain their composure before reentering the classroom to tackle the lesson at hand. Thus, open bathroom policies are arguably more likely to foster a better learning environment than restrictive ones.  

Furthermore, restrictive bathroom policies psychologically impact students by instilling the belief that teachers do not care about their physical comfort and well-being as long as they are academically successful. Holding in urine weakens bladder muscles and increases the risk of urinary tract infections. Restrictive bathroom policies hold even more extreme physical consequences for students with medical issues like irritable bowel syndrome, or biologically female students who need to change their pads or tampons during their menstruation cycles. For students whose teachers may not know they are affected by these medical conditions, denying them the chance to use the bathroom can lead to chronic consequences. In the case of female students who need to address their sanitary product needs, an inability to do so in a timely fashion can result in toxic shock syndrome, a life-threatening complication caused by leaving a menstrual product in the body for an extended period of time.

Tulovsky’s experiences with classrooms that have open bathroom policies support the idea that open bathroom policies increase classroom productivity. “I’ve noticed that classes in which students don’t even need to ask the teacher to go to the bathroom run much more smoothly than teachers who make one student going to the bathroom a whole class discussion,” Tulovsky explained.

Anonymous teacher A contended that students can use the bathroom at the beginning of class or during passing without interfering with lesson plans: “Students can quickly go to the bathroom before the lesson starts. That is the best solution.”

However, this is not always possible for a multitude of reasons: students may use the entire five minutes to walk to their next class, they may need to wait in long bathroom lines that would make them late to class, or it may just be physically impossible for them to wait until the end of the period; they may have to use the bathroom urgently in the middle of the period, and there is nothing they can do about that. “Lots of us have crazy schedules, and [teachers need] to respect that,” Tulovsky explained.

Some other teachers let students use the bathroom but later penalize them by deducting points from their participation grades. “I’ve heard a lot of people say, like, ‘I only went three times a semester, and I already got a note in my transcript saying ‘excessive use of bathroom pass,’” sophomore A said. 

Mathematics teacher Dawn Vollaro laid out the rationale behind her bathroom policies: “I think, you know, if you come back and forth within five minutes, that’s certainly reasonable. [...] When they’re out for extended periods of time [...] 15 minutes, 20 minutes out of the period, several times a week, [they are] missing a lot of work that’s going on in class.” Vollaro also elaborated on why she feels restrictive bathroom policies are necessary: “I’ve seen students come back into my room and they’re putting away their phone[s], [which is] distracting to students themselves.” She stated that restrictive bathroom policies are for the students’ own good: “Those students that abuse the trips out of the room, I think they’re facing a problem because they’re not getting what they need to study for a test. [...] The students that seem to be missing the most are the ones that are struggling academically,” Vollaro explained. 

Freshman Anonna Mehjabin emphasized the importance of student autonomy when it comes to their schooling. “One thing I don’t understand about teachers—it’s like whenever they’re like, ‘Oh, but if you go to the bathroom, you’re gonna miss so much material,’” Mehjabin explained.  “That’s my personal choice to make.” Many students learn the material they miss by getting notes from a friend or, in some cases, filling in their notes later with information accessible on Google Classroom. Thus, students are capable of learning class material they miss on their own time; if they do not do so, it is on them and not their teachers. 

Some also feel that it is also unfair for teachers to punish the class under the assumption that a few students would exploit an open bathroom policy. “Most of the student population doesn’t abuse the bathroom rule [by] not actually going to the bathroom and just going and hanging out with their friends, so the majority of students shouldn’t be penalized for the misbehavior of a couple of students,” Tulovsky explained.

Students instead propose that the minority of students that exploit open bathroom policies should be disciplined on a case-by-case basis. “If [students] leave [for] the bathroom and they skip, inform their parents [by] e-mail,” Mehjabin suggested. 

Vollaro did bring up another reason why she keeps such a close track of students’ trips to the bathroom. Along with looking out for those who are missing class time, monitoring students coming in and out of the classroom also serves as a safety measure: “The other [reason] started really after 9/11. Teachers were asked to have a log [in case], God forbid, something horrible happened. And even now, when we have emergency drills, to account for where students are, I have them sign out. It’s just good practice,” Vollaro said. This brings up an important point regarding the safety purposes of bathroom logs. However, if these records are kept exclusively for safety reasons, then using them to penalize students’ participation grades is unnecessary.

Most students and teachers collectively seek a classroom environment that is ideal for learning. Bathroom policies can become caught between teachers that want to maximize classroom productivity and students that want the freedom to exercise the right to relieve themselves when they feel it is necessary. It's important that both parties be considerate of the other and maintain open-minded conversations to reach a middle ground.